I had given myself an impossible goal, at least that’s what I thought at the time. I wanted to surprise my multilingual girlfriend by learning one of her languages and randomly start using it with her. The chosen language was Swedish and I decided to surprise her on her next birthday, which gave me just under 12 months to hit the deadline. With a goal set so far ahead, I thought I’d easily complete it. Stupid me for thinking such a thing! Knowing I had almost a year before the surprise I immediately took a back seat, there was no sense of urgency and I let time fly by. Fast forward 9 months and I was nowhere where I wanted to be. Sure, I studied every now and then. I could understand a few words, construct a few sentences, but enough to surprise my girlfriend? Definitely not. With 3 months left I realised I had to pick up the slack if I wanted to successfully surprise her. I decided to commit to a minimum of 10 hours a week of deep practice. I would use flashcards, converse with locals and log into Duolingo for multiple hours. I’ll be honest with you, it was horrible, but I brought this upon myself. This could have been avoided if I had studied properly from the beginning.
In my experience, I found setting a deadline one of the main motivators that pushed me to hit my goal. Not only did it hold me accountable, but it put some added pressure that pushed me to get off my lazy arse. In this blog, not only will I share with you my experience with deadlines, but I’ll explain why having a deadline for your goals is not a bad idea for you to implement in your everyday life.
Get your priorities in order
Having a checklist of tasks to complete is very useful, especially when you have so much to do! You could either track it with a pen and paper, or you could use an online management tool like Trello. The problem with a to-do list is that we can fall into the trap of piling on more tasks without getting a chance to complete anything else. You start off with 3 important tasks, but then reality kicks in and you have to add another 10 more by the end of the week. Sound familiar? Well, it did for me. It wasn’t until I started adding deadlines to each task that I realised what was the most important item to complete. Adding a deadline allows you to step back and discern what needs working on immediately. Tasks with a shorter deadline tend to get bumped up to the top of the list, helping you to create a little order in your list of priorities.
Warren Buffett had a more interesting approach to prioritising his list. When talking with his personal pilot he asked him to write down his top 25 goals. Having done that, Buffett told the pilot to circle his top five most important goals. Once that was done, the list was now split in two. The first list with 5 important goals, the second with the remaining 20. Then Buffett said, “Everything you didn’t circle just became your Avoid-At-All-Cost list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top 5.”
It’s a cut-throat approach to prioritising. but maybe this is what is needed in order to reach your goals. This way of thinking doesn’t have to just be for your life goals, it can also be used for your to-do list for the week or even the day! Understanding what your priorities are in all aspects of your life is important, and setting a deadline for each task, goal or challenge, allows you to establish your level of priority for each one.
Move with a sense of purpose
In hindsight, I realised that giving myself a lengthy timeline was my downfall. Knowing that I had an entire year to learn a new skill I moved with no purpose, sure I had a goal, but it was so far away I thought I could take my time and learn at a slow steady pace. There was no sense of urgency, there was no commitment to learning 2 hours a day, there was nothing pushing me to go and study the language. Once I realised that the deadline was looming, that’s when panic set in and I realised if I don’t take this goal seriously, I will miss the deadline.
Robert Greene, the author of the book Mastery phrased it well,
“The feeling that we have endless time to complete our work has an insidious and debilitating effect on our minds…For this purpose you must always try to work with deadlines, whether real or manufactured.”
The only thing that got me moving was knowing that the birthday was soon fast approaching. The idea of failure and having to wait another year in order to surprise my girlfriend was enough to light a fire under me and get to work.
Having a deadline not only helps you to understand what needs working now, but it actually gets you moving and completing the goal. Learn from my mistakes and not set your goals too far in advance. Which leads me to my next point.
Set shorter deadlines
Setting a goal and giving yourself a deadline is great, but setting one too far into the future that you forget about the goal, is just as bad as not setting one at all. We’ve all been there, it’s a new year and along with it comes new resolutions. Losing weight for the year, getting on top of finances or reading more books for self-improvement are a few of the top-ranking new year’s resolutions every year. How many are able to stick to their new year’s resolutions for the entire year? There’s about a 30% drop off rate from the first week, that increases to 40% after the first month and about 60% fall off the wagon after 6 months. Statistically speaking, you have less than half a chance of sticking to a new year’s resolution.
One reason I believe that so many can’t stick to their resolutions is that they don’t break down their goals down into smaller, manageable deadlines. Looking back, I realised that I should have broken it down into quarters, or perhaps monthly and maybe quite possibly weekly. For this reason, I now keep a weekly report card on my learning status. I honestly grade myself from the previous week, basing it on the number of hours I’ve committed to achieving my goals and deadlines. Ever since I implemented this into my life, I have found that I’ve been holding myself more accountable and getting closer to the main goal.
Keep that sense of urgency alive in you by constantly giving yourself shorter deadlines to work towards. No matter how little, all of those little victories add up, and sooner than later you’ll find that you’ve achieved the big goal you set out to do. Duke Ellington, the famous composer, and pianist said it best, “I don’t need more time. What I need is a deadline.”
Hold yourself accountable
Setting yourself a deadline is one thing, but to announce it to the world is a whole different story. Why would you want to do such a thing? To keep yourself accountable of course! When I realised that I only had 3 months left on my deadline, I made a commitment to myself that I would study for at least 10 hours a week, sometimes that would mean studying for 2 hours in one sitting! If I didn’t share this commitment with anyone I could have easily kept it to myself and no one would have known that I had failed. I knew I had to find someone to hold me accountable. After searching the internet for such a service, I came across a website known as Stickk.com. Not only do you announce your commitment to the online world, but you pay a fee to an anti-charity for not achieving your deadline. It sounds ridiculous, but I was sold. Stickk.com utilises the psychological power of loss aversion, the idea of losing something is a great motivator to achieving your goals than getting something for completing it. So I invited a few friends to follow me on my journey and got one of them to referee my progress. Ironically, if I had failed one week I would have to fork out $20 to the anti-charity that campaigned for an independent Britain. I was pretty much funding an organisation that wanted to push my overseas girlfriend further away from me.
How did I do? Out of the 13 weeks of intense studying, there were only two occasions where I was unable to commit to a minimum of 10 hours per week. Which meant I had to fork out $40 to the anti-charity. At least it wasn’t the full $260! Having friends following my progress and the thought of losing out on a relatively large sum of money really motivated me. If you decide to do something similar I recommend increasing the stake to an amount that you’re uncomfortable ‘throwing’ away.
My final thoughts
Everything I’ve shared with you in this article has come from first-hand experience. I too have wondered endlessly with no real direction to achieving my goals. It was only when I decided to give myself a deadline, whether small or big, that it help me establish what the next step was. I can totally understand the stress of giving yourself a deadline and not achieving it. This doesn’t mean you’re a failure, it just gives you some perspective on where you are on your journey. Remember, constant feedback is never a bad thing. Hopefully, by reading this article you would have understood the psychological benefits of constantly giving yourself a deadline and how it far outweighs the little-added pressure on hitting your goal – sometimes a little pressure is good for you! I would recommend at least giving this a try with something small, you can then see if it help motivate you or not. Since experiencing the 3-month deadline for learning a new language, I realised the importance of having a deadline in general. Not only have I placed a deadline for each of my main goals, but I also do it with small tasks throughout the months, weeks and even days. Give yourself one and see how it goes. I wish you good luck on your journey!